Structural racism led to worse Covid impact on BAME groups – report

Rajeev Syal
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty</span>
Photograph: Anthony Devlin/Getty

Structural racism led to the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, a review by Dame Doreen Lawrence has concluded.

The report, commissioned by Labour, contradicts the government’s adviser on ethnicity, Dr Raghib Ali, who last week dismissed claims that inequalities within government, health, employment and the education system help to explain why Covid-19 killed disproportionately more people from minority ethnic communities.

Lawrence’s review found BAME people are over-represented in public-facing industries where they cannot work from home, are more likely to live in overcrowded housing and have been put at risk by the government’s alleged failure to facilitate Covid-secure workplaces.

She demanded that the government set out an urgent winter plan to tackle the disproportionate impact of Covid on BAME people and ensure comprehensive ethnicity data is collected across the NHS and social care.

The report, entitled An Avoidable Crisis, also criticises politicians for demonising minorities, such as when Donald Trump used the phrase “the Chinese virus”.

Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who was murdered in a racist attack in 1993, was commissioned to lead the review by the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, after it became clear minority ethnic people were being disproportionately hit by the pandemic. More than a third of all critically ill Covid-19 patients up to August were from an ethnic minority, according to government statistics.

In the report’s foreword, Lawrence said minority ethnic people have been “overexposed, under protected, stigmatised and overlooked”. “This has been generations in the making. The impact of Covid is not random, but foreseeable and inevitable – the consequence of decades of structural injustice, inequality and discrimination that blights our society. We are in the middle of an avoidable crisis. And this report is a rallying cry to break that clear and tragic pattern,” she said.

The report comes days after Ali suggested it was time to stop using ethnicity when deciding who needed help. “The problem with focusing on ethnicity as a risk factor is that it misses the very large number of non-ethnic minority groups, so whites basically, who also live in deprived areas and overcrowded housing and with high risk occupations,” he said.

The equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, said the increased risk appeared to be because of “a range of socio-economic and geographical factors” but warned the risks “remained unexplained for some groups” and further analysis was planned for the coming months.

In today’s 26-page report, Lawrence has made 20 immediate and long-term recommendations to protect those most at risk from the virus and reduce societal inequalities.

As part of an urgent plan for the winter, the government should remind employers they have a legal duty to record Covid-19 deaths caused by occupational exposure, the report said.

Employers should be legally required to publish their Covid-19 risk assessments on a central government portal and must provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), Lawrence concluded.

Ministers must also suspend the “no recourse to public funds” rule, Lawrence said, which prevents some migrants accessing state assistance, and give support to any person struggling to self-isolate at home.

In the longer term, the government should remove barriers to accessing health services and information, collect comprehensive data on ethnicity and reform the immigration system, the review said.

In June, Public Health England’s report on Covid-19 deaths confirmed the risk of dying among those diagnosed with Covid-19 was higher in those in BAME groups than in white ethnic groups.

After accounting for the effect of sex, age, deprivation and region, it found that people of Bangladeshi ethnicity were at most risk, with about twice the risk of death compared with people of white British ethnicity.

People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, other Asian, Caribbean and other black ethnicity had between 10% and 50% higher risk of death when compared with white British.

The review called for a plan to tackle a rise in hate crime and stigmatisation of minority ethnic communities, particularly among politicians.

It criticised a tweet from the Conservative MP Craig Whittaker, who wrote in July: “If you look at the areas where we’ve seen rises and cases, the vast majority, but not by any stretch of the imagination all areas, it is the BAME communities that are not taking this seriously enough.”

Starmer said the report must be a “turning point”, promising that the next Labour government will implement a race equality act to tackle structural racial inequality.

“Government ministers should absorb this report and act immediately. Failure to do so will leave many of our fellow citizens badly exposed over the winter,” he said.

A government spokesperson said: “The current evidence shows that a range of factors result in different groups being at an increased risk of infection and death from Covid-19 – from exposure in the workplace to pre-existing health conditions.

“For this reason we must be careful to identify the root causes of the disparities we’re seeing and not assume they are evidence of discrimination or unfair treatment in public services like the NHS. Indeed, many of the factors identified in the report affect non-ethnic groups as well.

“We will continue taking this work forward to ensure that we do everything we can to protect those most at risk”